Iditarod 2006 - Part 1: Anchorage - RohnIt is already April th 9th, 3 weeks after arriving in Nome. I finally packed away the sled yesterday and even that last run was pushing it, quite a few stretches of that run had more gravel than snow. As soon as I get a few miles up the trail, the snow is actually still great, but down here in the Takhini Valley it melts fast.
The big news is, that I write this e-mail from home, actually looking at the snow covered Arkell Mountains instead of the Hotel lobby where I used to have my office and computer. Each e-mal and phone call was a 30 mile drive away. This is a big change, I used to drive to Whitehorse almost daily, realizing that this was a necessity if I wanted to survive in the Tour business. A phone line and even better high speed internet has found its way to the cabin. So did all the stuff from my office, it a kind of got full in here, I am surprised of how much stuff I collected in that office in 9 years. There is still no power, so a little generator is buzzing to provide the juice, but that is still much better and more affordable than driving 60 miles a day. It also saves a lot of time, about 1.5hrs a day and I am wondering what I will do with that time. One voice in my head says to use it to get myself into shape and go jogging, of course so far I have ignored that voice; another voice says to spend it with the dogs, which is pretty much what I have been doing. Now that the dogyard has temporarily turned into mud those social hours have to be early in the morning, where everything is still nicely frozen. Tang has permanently moved into the cabin though, leaving muddy pawprints on everything.
My thoughts are still often lingering in Nome, I am checking the weather reports and they still have winter storms up there. That keeps me wondering why am I living this far south, south by northern standards. Lance Mackey just won the Kobuk 440 and I wish I could have been up there in Kotzebue, but once the Iditarod was over, „real live " was catching up. With training and all the races of the season I ran the dogs about 5000 Miles this past winter, it was a nice season full of challenges which need to be overcome. As after each season, I suffer from PMS, Post mushing syndrome and need some time to get back into gear.
The time between the Quest and Iditarod is definitely too short. We got back to Whitehorse late Friday night; Pierre was doing most of the driving while I slept on the passenger seat. Saturday was busy with unpacking the truck and sorting out the Food Drops and than there was the Quest Mushers Banquet in the evening. Sunday saw more packing once again. Here I was wondering if I should not take my Quest dogs for a short run. I did not and would come to regret that later on. I kept all of Lance Mackey`s dogs here in the yard, so they would not be crammed in their boxes. That decision also paid off, as someone tried to nab Lance`s dogtrailer from the parking lot in town.
My vehicles gave me the usual trouble again so instead of leaving Sunday we had to postpone it to Monday to bring my Truck into the shop. That would turn out into quite the ordeal, as the truck we wanted to use to bring it in, would not start either. My patience was strained to a maximum when the Truck I usually use to drive clients also would not start, worse off all I did was driving it back from the shop after they supposedly fixed the electrical problem it had. I guess not. I decided to drive my dogtruck to Anchorage as is and just crossed my fingers it would make it there. Lance had also truck trouble as usual, we saw each other in Hainces Junction but than he got stuck in Beaver Creek with a blown radiator. We made it to Tok and were wondering how come he would not catch up. The evening we spend in Tok at Roy and Sandra`s Place and hit the road early Tuesday morning to Anchorage. It was very warm and no snow in Wasilla, so the official race start would be in Willow once again. Volker and Pierre also joined us on Thursday for the Banquet. The Banquet is huge and this year saw a new way of determining our start order: In the order we signed up for the race, we could actually pick our start positions. When time came to go on stage and pick my number I picked number 34, in the 34th Iditarod, last year my number was double of that, 68.
While in Willow we stayed it Candy`s same as last year and it was great to see her again. Candy had a new family member which I touted the "ugly dog", as the poor pup is deaf and near blind, but still super sweet in nature. While in Anchorage we this time stayed with Jim and Bonnie Foster who were wonderful hosts. They own quite the nice house, and it gets even better as they keep their dogs in there and Tang could join right in on the couch. Bonnie actually wants to adopt Tang, but I cannot part with her yet, she for one has to get me to Nome one more time but also train me some new leaders. While on the Iditarod my " spare " dogs would stay in Rick Casillo`s doglot and Pierre would pick up Rick`s and my dropped dogs. So all the logistics were worked out.
The only thing I could not work out was who and who not to take on the race. In the end I opted to take 12 of my Quest dogs Tang, Marmot, Gas, Diesel, Libby, Jack, Suhmo, Wondar, Franky, Herring, Rat, Coon. In there are 10 of the 11 finishers and I only left Chevy behind. This did somewhat hurt as he is one of my main leaders. I could tell though, that he did not want to race again. To those 12 Quest dogs I added Finn another Yearling, as well as Spook (who is Tang`s brother), Neuro who raced Iditarod with me last year and a sweet little white female named Polar, who I got from Catherine Pinard a few years back. I left behind a few key dogs like Paws and Otto who both finished Iditarod last year but are getting up there in age, with 8 and 9 respectively. A rather wanted to give a few younger dogs like Rat and Finn the chance to prove themselves. Popcorn and Nemo, two of my nice 2 year olds who finished the Iditarod as yearling had shoulder problems all season and I also left them out of the lineup, with both being good upcoming leaders that was a tough decision.
At the all day mushers meeting I met my Iditarider Valerie Payne. She and her husband own a dog hotel in the lower 48. The Ceremonial Start is a huge spectacle. I over and over hear from some of my fellow Quest mushers that they would never run the Iditarod because of that "Circus". All I can says is that they have no idea on what fun they miss out on. Sure it is a Spectacle but the energy and emotions are riding high that day and I am very glad to see all those people along the streets and trails of Anchorage, who feverish support our sport. Thanks to you all. My team ran Quest Speed right from the beginning, nothing I was too worried about though, a 1000 Miles is a long way. Something I also did notice that run, although it is only 11 miles, that some of the dogs gait was off, they looked stiff. That did worry me quite a bit.
The last night before the race we spent at Candy`s again, doing last minute preparations like Candy sewing up my sleeping bag which I burned on the Stove in Scroggy Creek during the Quest. I am usually somewhat unsocial before a race and kept on mulling over gear, packing my sled and spending time with the dogs.
Finally Race day: The teams were parked on Willow Lake this year, much better organized than last year. I love the race day atmosphere and sighed with relieve when we pulled into our parking spot. The truck was acting up more than ever and I told Pierre to get it into the shop right away, time for a new transmission.
Between the Quest and Iditarod I have been unable to sleep a whole night, I kept on waking up, thinking I would be in a checkpoint and that I overslept. Instead of trying to fight that sleep pattern I slept 2 times per day, same as in the race. Once between 2 a.m. and 6 in the morning and again in the afternoon. Same today, I had a nap in the truck which got interrupted by Hugh Neff, who needed to borrow a dogfood cooker. Unable to fall back to sleep because the adrenaline of the upcoming race start was kicking in, I got back up and started visiting other mushers and look at their gear. With over 80 teams starting, there are a lot of different sleds, ganglines systems, harnesses etc to see. For me that is a very important part of racing to see what other people do, how it works for them and so on.
Once the time came to hook up the dogs I noticed that they were pretty psyched up, barking and lunging on their tugline. My team is usually mellow and just stand there while being hooked up. I did not request very many doghandlers and as soon as I pulled the panic snap the team started bolting toward the start. One by one I lost all of my handlers and soon found myself racing towards the starting chute with 16 dogs in a flat out lope, only Roland was dragging behind on the snowhook on one side. Andi Hutten from Nenana had enough split second common sense to catch the 2nd snowhook which I threw at him, so at least I had 2 people dragging behind on snowhooks while racing towards the chute. Thank god for Tang being reliable as ever and not taking us for visits with other trucks. At the Start chute a whole gang of volunteers jumped into my team, something I do not like at all, but in this case that was the only possibility to get them to a stop.
This is a thing I like more in the Yukon Quest, where they use snowmachines to bring a team to the start, which I feel is a lot safer for the dogs. Nobody stepping on their feet and nobody falling of the team or even worse in the team. Quite a few Iditarod handlers have great intentions, but lack the experience or mostly physical strengths to hold back a team.
3,2,1 and go, finally we were off and heading west over Willow Lake under the cheer of hundreds (thousands ???) of race fans. A race start is a very special moment. They had the motto in the Quest a few years ago, "the journey of 1000 miles begins with one single step". That first step was now behind us but also all the long hours of preparation and training, the struggle of even getting to the starting line is a race in itself.
I am used to being passed very quickly in races, as I generally start rather conservative. This time I was passed even faster than I expected. One team in particular, number 39 flew by running flat our 20 mph looking like a beautiful sprint team. Hopefully I was on the right trail. Much to my disappoint many of my dogs gait was still not quite right, they were looking stiff, actually they were stiff. Sure enough the diagnosis in the first checkpoint of Yentna confirmed my fears. After only 40 miles I had several sore wrists, still very mild and treatable, but also 2 sore shoulders in Suhmo and Diesel, both of my Quest Finishers and very solid team dogs. Both had swollen tricep muscles. I spend my resting time in Yentna massaging dogs, something I would have to get very used to for the next days to come. I had never stopped in Yentna before and definitely wanted to see the Roadhouse as I heard too many great stories about it. Indeed it is a great place, many old photographs remind us on races which have gone by in the past. With a nice spaghetti meal in my belly I returned to massaging dogs. I decided to take all 16 to Skwentna, something I would regret shortly as I could tell that neither Suhmo nor Diesel would warm out of their soreness. I loaded them in the sled, not plan A, and dropped them in Skwentna. Worse off I found some other dogs with sore shoulders, this time biceps muscles which generally respond much better to massage and heat than triceps muscles. I was already running short on massage oil and vetwraps and that in the second checkpoint. Understandably my mood was at a low. I had never seen the Skwentna Roadhouse and post office neither, so went up the River Bank.
There was a constant come and go of dogteams. I caught a few hours of sleep before leaving the checkpoint at 6 a.m. The only good things was, that I right away was on my preferred run rest schedule, running between 6 a.m. and Noon, which is exactly when I arrived in Finger Lake. The snow on the trip to Finger Lake was deep and the trail slow, something I did not mind at all with having a sore team. Any speed would have made their condition worse. It also started to get really hot and sunny out, so I was glad to be resting in Finger Lake. There were a lot of teams here, I would guess it into the 50 team range. My time was spend massaging again, rather than sleeping, I only got about 1 hr in the sleeping bag beside my sled. With all the mushers here I knew there was not point in trying to find a sleeping spot inside, besides the sunshine was beautiful. There are some very experienced vets in the race, but also some very new ones, and I happened to get the later. Instead of the usual 30 minute for a complete check this vetcheck did take a full 3 hrs.
I left the checkpoint with 14 dogs, same as last year. Big difference to last year I never flipped the sled once and the trail was really really nice. They did a great job, the Happy River Steps were very easy and there were no big holes in the trail compared to 2005. There was only one place in the trail where a stump had come up from all the teams which had gone by. I did not see that in time and it got between the runner and one stanchion. I came to a dead stop and had to take some tuglines off to free my sled, but no further damage done. I arrived in Rainy Pass under Moonlight around 10 p.m. Once again rest time meant massage time. The dogs appetite was great, I never had much issues with the dogs not eating. On short runs I do not snack at all on the trail, that way I know they will take a full meal in the next checkpoint.
I left Rainy Pass at 5 p.m, right my favourite time, this would also get me though the Dalzell Gorge in daytime. The long 7 hr rest also gave my team some more spunk, but I still had many little sorenesses to deal with, so speed was not really what I was looking for. The Gorge had great snow in it and was easy to navigate, again I never even wiped out. About half way through, in a very narrow part of the trail, a cross made from willows marked the spot Richard Strick one of the trail breakers from Mc Grath left his life while being buried by an avalanche. We made it to Rohn in a little of 4 hrs, a bit faster than I wanted but that was mostly due to the good trail. While checking the dogs I was once again getting a real downer. I had more sore wrists than before and every wrist wrap in use. Plus some I borrowed. Other teams had to fight with diahria (who the hell do I spell that??), luckily my dogs had none of that.
I had serious thoughts of scratching and going home. With each checkpoint I was dropping in placings and I had a hard time to mentally accept that my race would not go as planned and that it in fact was not a race anymore. There is so much time for preparation but also money going into this race, so many people helping to make it possible to get to the starting line, that I forced myself to go. Two main thoughts kept me going: The first was of a practical matter. To each checkpoint we send a lot of supplies, from Massage Oil (which I had not enough) to booties, Batteries, Runner Plastic but also more expensive stuff like spare boots and spare dogblankets. In all I calculated that in each checkpoint I might have an average of $ 400 worth of stuff. So with me scratching I would loose all of that and could not mail it home. So with each checkpoint I would reach, I would make $ 400. Shut up and make $ 400 a checkpoint I told myself. The second thought was more emotional, that I could not let the dogs and people who helped me down, just because I was not having a good time. I pulled the hook at 13.30 with a rather strange plan in my head.